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Posted in: thought leadership

17th December 2019

Why I'm Approaching a New Year With Hope in My Heart

By Halla Tómasdóttir

With the end of the year fast approaching, I find myself reflecting upon a tradition that shaped my own childhood as well as that of my children. I was born and raised in Iceland, a country so close to the North Pole that some children believe Santa Claus lives there. This leaves Iceland with plenty of festive folklore and the country honors no less than thirteen Santa Clauses—or Yule Lads.

The first mention of the Yule Lads can be traced back to a 17th century poem and early depictions describe them as mischievous pranksters often used to encourage children to behave well. The modern versions are more benevolent and the Yule Lads now come bearing small gifts, one per day for thirteen days until Christmas Eve—or, in the case of children who have not been on their “best behavior,” a potato in lieu of a gift.

Once a parent myself, I remember questioning if I should uphold this rather strange holiday tradition with my own children, but ultimately the joy and magic of the folklore won me over—and continues to do so today. So despite the many global challenges we now face, I’m entering this holiday season feeling hopeful. Honoring my own holiday tradition, while also respecting the fact that each of us have our own traditions and many may not celebrate this time of year, I want to share 13 reasons why I’m approaching 2020 with hope in my heart.

1. The next generation is rising. They are speaking truth to power and holding us accountable for their future, as they should. A year ago, none of us pushing for ambitious climate action could have imagined the transformative power of youth climate strikes around the world. Their call to action speaks right to our hearts, whether on the streets or around the dinner table. One of my favorite moments at The B Team this year was when we brought together 15 global CEOs and 15 youth activists in an intergenerational dialogue about our climate emergency.

2. We are changing the face of leadership. Women are heading top EU institutions for the first time and Finland has just appointed the world‘s youngest Prime Minister. She is currently the 4th female Prime Minister serving in the Nordic region. In South Africa, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced that they would become the 11th country to have a gender balanced cabinet. And the fastest growing continent, Africa, boasts the highest ratio of women in corporate boardrooms this year. Can you imagine what is possible if we transform leadership the world over to be less stale, male and pale?

3. “Business as usual“ is no longer an option. The B Team was founded in this belief and together our Leaders set out to come up with a better way to do business—one that pursues the wellbeing of people and planet alongside profit. While we have a long way to go to make this a mainstream reality, business leaders and their networks agreed this year that we need a new vision for business and our economy. We’ve seen a push to redefine the purpose of business beyond shareholder primacy with a bold statement from The Business Roundtable. Several leading business networks have come together in a new coalition, Imperative 21, determined to work together to shift our economic system away from short-termism toward long-term value creation. Making this shift means measuring what matters and managing on behalf of all stakeholders. No small task, but anything is possible and we can work together on creating an inclusive economy for all.

A year ago, none of us pushing for ambitious climate action could have imagined the transformative power of youth climate strikes around the world. Their call to action speaks right to our hearts—whether on the streets or around the dinner table.

Halla Tómasdóttir

4. CEO activism remains on the rise. In 2019 we saw CEOs speaking out on behalf of refugees, the climate crisis, financial inequality and gender balance, to name just a few. While the jury may still be out as to the impact of CEOs taking bold stands on challenging issues, numbers from the latest Edelman Trust Barometer show that the public views this positively and both employees and consumers increasingly expect CEOs to lead on environmental, social and political issues.

5. We are discovering the power of courage and collective strength. Navigating challenging times alone, whether in our personal or professional lives, is unlikely to leave us feeling strong. I have seen and been a part of many courageous communities this year. From private sector, government and civil society leaders in Brazil coming together on the back of the Amazon fires with a new vision called Amazônia Possível to convening with groups of fearless women dedicated to finding feminist solutions to the climate crisis, I have witnessed firsthand the courage and collective strength that comes from envisioning a better future together.

6. Employees are fast becoming powerful change catalysts. They are driving a massive shift in what companies care about and if companies don‘t seem to care, they make them. Every company wants to attract and retain talent and now we have new generations of workers who are making deliberate choices as to where they will and will not work. We see employees raising their voices and values like never before, even organizing walkouts when employers don‘t live up to their standards. Societal expectations are shifting and four out of ten American workers now consider themselves social activists and majority of millennial workers believe they can have a greater impact on the world than leaders of organizations can.

Businesses are increasingly recognizing that addressing tough challenges is imperative to their success. They know that no one can conduct business beyond the planetary boundaries nor in a world with a broken social contract.

Halla Tómasdóttir

7. Investors are shifting the norms of finance. Leading institutional investors from all over the world are putting environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues at the top of their agenda. They’re forming alliances to shift to carbon neutral portfolios and the world‘s largest pension fund, Japan‘s Government Pension Investment Fund, has suspended stock lending for short selling saying the practice lacks transparency. These signals show that investment in long-term success requires investing for the good of the planet and its people.

8. While the crisis of conformity in leadership is often associated with the boardroom, there is a governance revolution underway. Bold boards are changing what gets on the agenda, who sits around the boardroom table and how they engage with stakeholders. Boards are increasingly engaged and starting to embrace greater transparency around non-financial disclosures that either present significant risks and/or opportunities. Directors & Boards dedicated this entire year and its annual conference to the “Character of the Corporation” and raised issues ranging from corporate purpose to incorporating ESG in the boardroom. We may very well be moving from “good governance” to “great governance” and those who embrace the latter will earn the trust of stakeholders.

9. We are redefining success and starting to measure what matters. Businesses increasingly embrace the Global Goals (SDGs) or other non-financial disclosures like ESG or triple bottom line metrics that consider our impact on people and the planet. While historically businesses have mostly addressed issues that they feel are relevant to their own success, they’re increasingly recognizing that addressing tough challenges like eradicating forced labor, violence against women and our global refugee and migrant crisis is imperative to their success. They know that no one can conduct business beyond the planetary boundaries nor in a world with a broken social contract

10. We are no longer discussing the technology disruption, without raising the importance of ethical and humane use of technology. We now acknowledge that the fast advances in technology are affecting our social fabric—and not always positively. Technology has most certainly benefited our lives and will continue to provide us with important solutions, but we now understand the dangerous side effects including digital addiction, mental health challenges, polarization and breakdown in our democratic processes. We may not yet know how to navigate a technological disruption in a way that serves humanity, but businesses are taking proactive steps from hiring chief ethical and humane use of technology officers, signing digital declarations and urging the US congress to pass privacy laws in line with what Europe has already done.

At the C-Suite level, a majority of CEOs recognize the damage our economic status quo has caused and believe our systems need to pivot toward equitable growth.

Halla Tómasdóttir

11. Consumers are putting the “power of the purse” to work. From the anti-plastic revolution to the food revolution, consumer expectations are shifting faster than business behavior. Sustainability is driving demand and customer loyalty and no forward-looking business can ignore this trend. Consumers want more sustainable products and they will pay more for them. Younger buyers are moving the needle and sustainable apparel has fast become a fashion trend.

12. We are recognizing the urgency and importance of building an inclusive economy. In the face of a crisis of inequality around the world, there’s a growing focus on driving inclusive growth. At the C-Suite level, a majority of CEOs recognize the damage our economic status quo has caused and believe our systems need to pivot toward equitable growth. While the latest indicators show that fewer people are living in extreme poverty than any other point in recorded history and more than a billion people have been lifted out of extreme poverty in the last 25 years, we are still not on track to end extreme poverty by 2030. This is completely unacceptable and we must come together to ensure we can build economies that serve all—and build them fast.

13. We are re-discovering the value of community. During these disruptive times, it often feels as if we are more divided than ever. At the same time, we are also seeking belonging and support as we take on some of the world’s most pressing challenges. I have always tried to surround myself with people who share my core belief that we need to embrace the courage to shake our systems when they are not working, but also embrace the humility to listen to alternative voices and remain open to learn, grow and evolve. I am lucky to belong to many such communities, from The B Team to the great sisterhood of transformative women leaders all around the world.

But no community matters more to me than my immediate family. I have simple hopes for this holiday season. I want to enjoy quiet time at home with my loved ones—reading good books, sharing great food, playing cards and taking long walks with our dog. These are the things that provide me with the deepest joy and also allow me to recharge my batteries so that I can go back to “changing the world“ alongside all of you.

I am incredibly grateful for each and every one of you and the work you do. May we continue to wake up to a better world and each play our part in making it so—and let us never forget that we can‘t change the world if we don‘t attend to our own inner world. May you rest and rejuvenate this holiday season and return ready for impact in 2020 and beyond.

I wish you a happy holiday season and nothing but health and happiness in the new year.